Comet Neowise

Comet Neowise is giving an unprecedented and unexpected show right now. Don’t miss it.

Some good friends from my distant past were visiting last weekend and, after an already long day, we decided at 10:30 p.m. on one more outing, to see the comet C/2020 F3 a.k.a., Comet Neowise. Actually seeing a comet is a rare event and seemed worth the effort.

We drove just a few miles from home out onto the Old Shotgun Road off Island Park’s Yale-Kilgore road and when we saw a car alongside the road with occupants staring at the sky, we figured we had gone far enough. We bailed out and sure enough there in the northwest night sky, below the Big Dipper constellation and about two fist widths above the horizon (a fist width held at arms’ length is 10 degrees of the sky), was a long triangular glow. Binoculars and a spotting scope made it even better.

Comet Neowise is named for NASA’s space telescope, Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), launched in 2009. This telescope was specifically tasked with photographing all of space it could see, a project that it accomplished in two years. Then the coolant needed for the infrared photography ran out and the telescope was put to sleep for a few years. When scientists woke it back up, it was with a new task, one that could be accomplished without the coolant. It was now tasked to look at “near Earth objects” such as asteroids, meteors and comets, thus the first part of the name, NEO.

On March 27th, 2020, the space-based telescope discovered the comet we are now seeing. This comet is far brighter than most other comets and can be observed with the naked eye. At first it was low enough that it could only be seen in the early morning, but now it is easily seen shortly after twilight if you are in a dark-sky location.

Comets, often called “cosmic snowballs”, are chunks of ice (about 13 million Olympic swimming pools of frozen water in Neowise), rock and dust hurtling through the sky and orbiting the sun in huge elliptical paths. This one is estimated to be three miles wide, average for a comet and far smaller than Halley’s comet. Like other comets, Neowise sports a trailing tail of dust that may be up to 10 million miles long. Another tail of ion particles can sometimes be seen and scientists believe that Neowise may have a third tail, this one of sodium.

Comet Neowise has drawn far closer than when it was discovered about 160 million miles away and about 25,000 times fainter than the dimmest star. It passed within 27.3 million miles of the sun on July 3, when it was subjected to temperatures of up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. But unlike two other comets this year that did not survive this close encounter, Comet Neowise did survive.  As its orbit takes it away from the sun and us (it reached its closest point to the Earth yesterday, July 22), it is now at 64 million miles from Earth and counting (it is traveling at 40,000 miles per second). We get a show that will disappear quickly as it moves away from the sun.

Scientists suggest that a very fortunate human will only get four opportunities to see a comet with a tail in a lifetime.  I was around for Halley’s Comet in 1986 (but will likely miss the predicted return in 2061) and photographed Hale-Bopp in 1997. This may be the last comet I will ever see and it won’t return for about 6,800 years. Comets are unpredictable and I don’t know about you, but I just can’t pass up opportunities like that anymore. Catch this one before it is gone.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho